Hands On: Onkyo LS-B50 Soundbar

Good for TV and movies, plus Bluetooth for your music

The Onkyo LS-B50 is a solidly-built soundbar that will look good under a 50-55 inch TV. While many companies are trying to make their soundbars as slim as the TVs they get mounted under, Onkyo apparently understands that making good sound takes a bit of space. Still, at about 36 inches long and 3.5 inches deep, it’s not going to be a big bulky thing on your wall or your TV table.

The LS-B50 is an active soundbar, which means it contains the amplifiers to power the drivers (passive soundbars require an amp or integrated receiver). The unit includes six main drivers and two tweeters, plus a separate subwoofer. Two of the soundbar’s drivers are mounted on the left and right ends of the unit to help create a wider and more circular soundfield, particularly when recreating surround sound.

Like the majority of soundbars, the main connection of the LS-B50 is a digital optical input (there’s also a digital coax and an analog stereo input for connecting an iPod via the headphone jack). It even includes the optical cable. This one doesn’t include an HDMI input, which is a shame because it does have built-in Dolby Digital decoding.

The standard setup is to plug all your source devices (DVR, Blu-ray player, game) into the TV’s inputs and then use the audio return output on your TV (usually a digital optical port) to connect to the soundbar. The subwoofer is wireless, so in theory you can put it wherever you want and not worry about the cable.

The soundbar can be controlled by most TV remotes so you’re not stuck with the little matchbox remote it comes with. In the box is an IR flasher if you need to send signals to other devices.

I placed the soundbar on the table below my TV and connected the optical cable. The wireless subwoofer was small enough to fit underneath one of my end tables, so I did that, placing it out of the way. As soon as the subwoofer got power it synced up to the soundbar—easy peasy.

Next I connected my iPhone to the system via Bluetooth. Pairing was fast, and immediately I was listening to a Richard Thompson station on Pandora. The Onkyo sounded fuller and more detailed than the TV speakers, and offered a soundstage that rivaled separate speakers rather than a soundbar array.

Next I switched to my Verizon DVR to watch American Horror Story. The music in the opening title sequence is particularly rich, and the Onkyo reproduced it very well, especially the deep eerie growl of it—in fact there was a bit too much bass, which become clearer as I got further into the program. It wasn’t a problem of overwhelming low bass that churns your stomach and makes the dog bark at nothing. This was higher bass clearly coming from the subwoofer when it should be coming from the main speakers. I turned the subwoofer’s volume down quite a bit, and that helped, but I think the problem is that the crossover is too high for the sub. The result is that the sub is too directional instead of non-directional. In a traditional multichannel setup, you set the crossover around 80Hz, but many soundbars use a higher crossover (which can’t be adjusted) because the main drivers can’t deliver much bass. With this soundbar, for instance, one character in the show had a particularly deep voice. Whenever he spoke, I’d hear portions of the dialog come from the soundbar and other parts come from the subwoofer. And this was not an intentional special effect.

I turned the subwoofer down a little further and moved it to a different location (wireless subs are wonderful that way), and the combination seemed to smooth it out nicely. The best placement in the room I used it in turned out to be the front of the room, next to the table where the soundbar was resting. With that setup any high bass that came from the sub would still be coming from the front of the room, solving the directional problem.

The effect was less pronounced when I moved the whole setup to a different room, which is going to be the case with any speaker.

Aside from the bass issue, which I really don’t want to make too big a deal over, the Onkyo delivered the goods quite effectively. One thing that particularly impressed me was the clarity of normal dialog. Some soundbars, due to the drivers being all crammed in close together, obscure the dialog. Not so with this speaker.

The soundbar has three listening modes: Movie, Music and News. Both Movie and News push the dialog, News mode even more so. Movie mode also gets a bit more of a surroundy effect, but as with any soundbar, don’t expect true surround (even with the Dolby Digital decoding). The effect is more of a sound envelope than distinct surround sound channels, but it sounds pretty good.

Since I mention Dolby Digital… this system includes a DD decoder, and it’s almost completely useless. That’s not Onkyo’s fault. This is the case with every soundbar that relies on an optical connection to the TV (which is most of them). Most TVs will take the surround sound signal that comes in via HDMI from your Blu-ray player or DVR and turn it into PCM stereo to send to the optical output. The exception is when you’re using the TV’s built in ATSC or QAM tuner or one of the built-in video streaming services. Even soundbars with HDMI inputs don’t always get around this problem, and it’s the TV makers’ fault.

Anyway, the Onkyo LS-B50 did the job a good soundbar should—took the weakling audio from a TV and turned it into something with muscle. Both music and movies/TV were greatly improved by the system, and the ease of setup makes this product one that I could recommend even to people who are intimidated by audio/video connections.

Onkyo LS-B50 Soundbar

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